After several seasons spent rebuilding from the Palace Brawl aftermath, the Indiana Pacers are a team I think many NBA fans still reflexively regard as mediocre. Well, they shouldn't. Frank Vogel's appointment as head coach in February 2011 coincided with immediate, drastic improvement. The Pacers became a tougher, more focused team, pushing the Chicago Bulls in a first-round playoff series harder than a 4-1 result would indicate. This season, they've picked up where they left off, with a couple of new faces (David West, George Hill) making contributions.
For the inside dope on the Pacers, we tracked down Jared Wade, who hosts the outstanding Eight Points, Nine Seconds blog for True Hoop. Here are some thoughts on four questions, plus an additional one of my own.
Land O' Lakers: The Pacers are holding teams to 89.3 points per game, down dramatically from last season's 100.9. Even taking into account Indiana's pace and the fact that scoring is down across the board in a compressed season, that's a pretty remarkable uptick. What's accounted for this improvement?
Jared Wade: Most importantly, there is for the first time a consistent rotation of players with clearly defined roles who play in a cohesive system the team has bought into. And the addition of Hill's long arms, quick feet and well-drilled habits are a part of an overall improvement to the perimeter: the first line of defense, if you will.
Paul George didn't see big minutes until the twilight of last season, and he is an excellent defender who, at 6-foot-9, can envelop most guards with his length and stay in front of them with his agility. He gained a lot of confidence after checking Derrick Rose so well in last year's playoffs and it shows; he is now the rare player whose offensive game starts flowing after he makes a good defensive play instead of vice versa. Darren Collison is much improved. He was lost in the pick-and-roll last year and just got beat a ton. He isn't perfect now, but there are way fewer possessions that leave you shaking your head at his defensive technique and effort. And Danny Granger, who has always had the tools to be a better defender, has gotten back to being more of a two-way player. Perhaps it's because he's struggling to score and he feels he has to, but he is clearly not taking as many plays off on the other side of the ball as he has in recent years.
LOL: On the flip side, the Pacers are a fairly middling team on the offensive end (although interestingly enough, they have seven players averaging double figures). Why don't they score with more efficiency and/or effectiveness?
JW: A lot of it has to fall on Granger and West, neither of whom can make much of anything right now. Granger's 33.7 percent shooting stands out, but West's 44.2 percent shooting is nearly as far below his norm. So while we can -- and should -- blame those guys for the shots they're missing (many of which are around the rim), when your two best scorers can't score, the system is probably the issue. [Tyler] Hansbrough and Collison aren't exactly lighting it up, either.
Some can be attributed to the guys still learning Vogel's revamped system and figuring out how to play with West and Hill. But there are also just a lot of fits and starts. The team will be humming along for a few minutes and then fall back into what they did all last year: standing around. This stagnation is a killer for a team with no real creators off the dribble. It's all about ball movement and all too often, especially in their first five games, they had none for long stretches.
(AK's note: Players standing around watching? No creators off the dribble. The need for better ball movement? Is this a scouting report for the Pacers or the Lakers? ZING!!!)
LOL: Coming off a major injury, how has West looked and fit in?
JW: He is missing a ton of shots he should be making. According to Hoopdata, he is shooting 54.3 percent on layups as opposed to the 66.3 percent he hit last year. And he is under 42 percent on shots taken from 3 to 9 feet out -- a distance from which he is usually up over 46 percent. You have to think this is rust and that those numbers will improve. Otherwise, I think it's just familiarizing himself with new personnel.
But his individual effectiveness pales in comparison to the positive elements he has brought. He adds great spacing, facilitates good ball movement, serves as a good example of unselfish play and gives the team, along with Collison, a go-to play down the stretch in the pick-and-roll. I've always loved David West's game. Now, after just 14 games, I love it even more.
LOL: What matchup are you most curious to see on Sunday?
JW: Paul George on Kobe Bryant. He seems to relish checking the best, and that's what the man who has regained "Mamba" status is right now. Staying in front of Rose in the playoffs last year was a huge challenge. Being athletic and strong enough to stay with Dwyane Wade, whom he cooled off last year in one game when nobody else could, is a challenge. Stopping Kobe right now? We'll see what the young, lanky player from Fresno can do. But I'm pretty sure he is as excited about that as he has been for anything so far this season.
And finally, one more thought:
There's no place like home, right?
Seriously, please tell me there's no place like home. After two consecutive games in Florida featuring inept offense, slumping body language and erratic energy, a collective shot in the arm provided by the friendly confines of Staples Center is a comforting notion. Of course, "notion" and "given" are two very different things, and right now it's hard to count on anything from these Lakers.
It'll be interesting to gauge the vibe of fans and players back in their own house. Based on feedback from blog readers, our Twitter feed and radio this weekend, Lakers fans are, at best, fearful of a ship unable to be righted, and, at worst, ready to abandon a purple and gold Titanic. And the team itself seems pretty frustrated. How much inspiration and comfort will be provided by a return to Staples? How tolerant will fans be of a slow start or periods of sluggish scoring? It remains to be seen.